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> Posted by Center Staff

ICICI Bank and Stellar: A look at a transaction enabled by blockchain (click to enlarge)

Why are mainstream financial institutions and fintechs partnering to pursue financial inclusion? In the case of ICICI Bank and Stellar, it’s because combining forces enables them to reach clients with a free blockchain-backed mobile wallet that they could not sustainably offer on their own.

Last week we released a new joint report with the Institute of International Finance (IIF), How Financial Institutions and Fintechs Are Partnering for Inclusion: Lessons from the Frontlines. As part of the report, CFI and IIF conducted in-depth interviews with over 30 industry participants. We discovered dozens of partnerships between mainstream financial institutions and fintechs in emerging markets, and we detailed the workings of 14 of them.

The story of ICICI Bank and Stellar began when an ICICI Bank senior executive read a book about new technologies. The book mentioned a blockchain company in Silicon Valley called Stellar. Fast forward to today, Stellar now provides ICICI Bank with an open-source online ledger, or blockchain, designed to oversee the movement of money. ICICI Bank customers in India and abroad can transfer money through a free mobile wallet over Stellar’s platform. These transfers are made in real fiat currency, but internally they are documented in cryptocurrency. While the transfers are recorded on Stellar’s ledger in a cryptocurrency called ‘lumens,’ ICICI Bank holds the value for these transactions in Indian rupees in a pooled account. Due to the open nature of Stellar’s platform, ICICI Bank customers can transfer money to customers at any other bank on the platform. Stellar’s open platform has allowed ICICI Bank to easily connect with financial institutions that it might not have connected with otherwise.

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> Posted by the Microfinance CEO Working Group

(click to enlarge)

What’s been happening with the Microfinance CEO Working Group (MCWG)? We’re glad you asked. Fresh-off-the-press is a new annual report from the MCWG, detailing the Working Group’s key accomplishments and activities of the past year. Consumer protection is among the standout areas for the MCWG for 2016. Over the course of the year, 14 local partners belonging to the MCWG network achieved Smart Certification, including BRAC Bangladesh, the first microfinance provider in the country and the largest in the world to reach the consumer protection milestone. In total, 21.9 million clients are served by 39 MCWG network Smart Certified institutions.

The MCWG is comprised of the leaders of 10 global microfinance organizations: Accion; Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance; BRAC; CARE; FINCA; Grameen Foundation; Opportunity International; Pro Mujer; VisionFund International; and Women’s World Banking. The newest member, added in 2016, is the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance and its General Manager Jesse Fripp. The MCWG also harnesses the expertise of more than 40 senior staffers across the member organizations, who meet regularly across seven Peer Groups focused on specific areas of microfinance, from digital financial services, to social performance, to communications, taxation, and others. Members and local partners work with more than 89 million clients in 87 countries, providing them with financial services as well as other support to help them succeed and lift their families out of poverty.

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Senior Director, the Smart Campaign

The merits and pitfalls of mobile credit continue to be debated hotly in financial inclusion circles. Mobile products are making credit more accessible through branchless banking and alternative underwriting and business models. But experimenting with new ways of lending when your borrowers include those at the base of the pyramid brings steep risks and some models can be downright reckless. Which side of the fence are you on?

The Smart Campaign is seeking to assist the sector to develop a consensus about responsible online credit practice, and the good news is that these questions have recently become top-of-mind for a range of stakeholders. Quona’s Johan Bosini and Positive Planet’s Bezant Chongo gamely volunteered for an Oxford-style debate on whether mobile credit is good for its clients at the 4th Annual Mondato Summit in Johannesburg back in May.

The convenience and ease-of-access of mobile credit products are immensely beneficial to the unbanked, according to Bosini, speaking for the pro side. When juxtaposed to traditional lending products that take, for instance, in Benin, an average of almost 5 weeks to access (involving multiple trips), mobile credit seems supersonic, he emphasized. Using alternative data and analytics, mobile credit unlocks access for individuals without credit history. The reality for the poor, as elucidated by the Financial Diaries and other research, is that incomes fluctuate widely. Now with mobile credit, a person in a pinch can help smooth the inevitable bumps in income with a few clicks on the phone.

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> Posted by Allyse McGrath and Dennis Ferenzy, Analyst at CFI and Associate Economist at IIF

Contrary to popular rhetoric, banks do not view fintechs primarily as competitors. Increasingly, they seek them as partners. This is the message of How Financial Institutions and Fintechs Are Partnering for Inclusion: Lessons from the Frontlinesa new joint report from the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI) and the Institute of International Finance (IIF). The report, launched today, finds that banks, insurers and payment companies don’t see fintechs as “little more than pinpricks for a banking mastodon with trillions in assets,” as The Economist colorfully described the fintech-bank relationship in 2015. The relationships between these players are more symbiotic than combative, because fintechs and mainstream financial institutions bring different strengths. With partnerships, fintechs get to scale their technology and access capital, while financial institutions gain assistance to improve product offerings, increase efficiency, and lower costs.

As it turns out, these are all goals with special relevance to low-income customers who look for products and services that are more convenient, less expensive, and higher quality. That makes financial institution-fintech partnerships a crucial strategy for meeting the financial needs of the unbanked and underbanked around the world. During our in-depth interviews with over 30 industry participants, both mainstream financial institutions and fintechs, CFI and IIF identified dozens of effective bank-fintech partnerships working at the base of the pyramid in emerging markets. The report highlights 14 of them.
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> Posted by Chris Wolff

At long last, Game of Thrones (GoT) has returned to our world!

Showing us ways the realm can collide with our realities, the cast’s appearance on Conan at last year’s Comic-Con drew attention to care for refugees fleeing Syria with the IRC. So here’s an allegory global citizens can follow: “Game of Thrones: Financial Inclusion edition!”

To play this game, start by identifying which character best embodies your own industry or strategy. Here’s a rundown of all the actors that can alleviate poverty in various manners.

Banks = Lannisters. As the major incumbents with the most money and power, in both worlds they’re a strong ally, but better make sure your interests stay aligned. I’m not referring to the villainy or goodness of individual characters, but as a family house you have to admit the kingdom hasn’t run without them. And as with the rivals who take Tyrion in and listen to his counsel, wouldn’t you want such a seconded expert able to understand multiple perspectives and models?

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> Posted by Lauren Hendricks, Executive Vice President, and Christian Loupeda, Senior Director Financial Inclusion, Grameen Foundation  

This is the second post in a three-part series that explores the role of digital financial services in expanding women’s control over their financial lives. You can read the first post here.

For poor, rural communities “field force” workers such as mobile money agents or government agricultural extension officers can be lifelines to services and information that bring rural residents greater control over their financial lives and help them increase their incomes and gain a connection to the larger world. But, for women, rather than a bridge, field force workers too often end up being one more hurdle on the way to access resources.

Across the developing world, almost all agricultural extension services lack female participation. Women, on average, comprise 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries and account for an estimated two-thirds of the world’s 600 million poor livestock keepers. Yet only 15 percent of the world’s agriculture extension agents are women, and only 5 percent of women farmers benefit from extension services–despite the fact that women play a significant role in farming activities from production all the way to commercialization. Similarly, for mobile money agents, GSMA reports that among its members that report on gender, only 23 percent of agents and 37 percent of customers are female.

As Lisa Kienzle mentioned in her post in this series on digital financial services for women, Grameen Foundation has found that a woman often benefits from being able to work with a trusted agent who can directly help her understand and use the services available. That’s why we have helped to develop women as banking agents in the Philippines. We created an independent network of female financial agents who work out of their neighborhood sari-sari (variety) shops. The all-female network now includes 862 trained agents, who bring digital financial services to more than 66,000 low-income clients. Recruiting female agents benefits the end clients, but also the female entreprenuers who become agents who typically see an increase in their own income of at least 20-to-30 percent.

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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Director, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

Where were you in 2006? I was living with friends in a “beach house” in San Diego. Since then, I lived in China, went to grad school, shifted careers, married, and had two kids. So much has changed in my life over the past decade. The same cannot be said on the topic of valuing socially-focused financial institutions.

In 2006, Clay O’Brien wrote the first-of-its-kind paper on “Valuing Microfinance Institutions.” This paper surveyed members of the Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) – which was then called the Council of Microfinance Equity Funds (CMEF) – and concluded that:

  • There was not enough transparency in terms of methodologies and benchmark data;
  • There was a need for a more robust, standardized valuation methodology; and
  • The social value of double-bottom line investments was not accounted for – or was accounted for negatively – in the valuation.

FIEC recently revisited the topic of valuing double-bottom line investments with its valuation working group to better understand how the topic has evolved over the past decade. What was found? Despite changes in the broader industry (new players, adjacent sector investments, etc.), very little has changed in terms of valuing financial inclusion investments. Our findings are compiled in a brief paper, Valuing Microfinance Institutions: Where Are We Now.

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> Posted by Saborni Poddar and Brett Hudson Matthews, Associate at MicroSave and Executive Director at My Oral Village

The financial inclusion industry often asks the question of how can we best configure mobile money products and services to support increased adoption and usage. But how about when prospective users are illiterate and innumerate (unable to decode large written numbers), as is the case for many unbanked individuals at the base of the pyramid?

In search of insights into designing mobile wallets for such illiterate and innumerate (oral) populations, we traveled through the Indian states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, interacting with potential users. As our conversations got underway, and we began to understand the implications of designing a mobile wallet that an oral individual can use with ease, we could visualize why a conventional mobile wallet design would not be as clear to a daily-wage unskilled laborer as it is to the readers of this blog.

To start with, almost everyone we talked to had a feature phone, but most used it only for voice calls and were unfamiliar with basic syntax and navigation rules. Most could not use an address book; each time they make a call, they dial numbers from scratch. This gave us a first-hand glimpse into the potential intimidation caused by technology.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

WeBank started piloting facial recognition for KYC (“know your customer”—verifying that a customer is who they say they are) last year—we heard about it when we talked with Jared Shu, a partner with McKinsey, as part of our deep dive about the different ways banks pursue financial inclusion. At that point, the technology was mere possibility, with some question about whether the regulator would allow it. Now, it seems, facial recognition is indeed serving as a form of identity in China. With the help of technology, customers can quite literally authorize a transaction using their face.

Alipay, a mobile payment app launched by Alibaba in 2004 and used by 120 million people in China, is partnering with Face++ (pronounced “face plus plus”) to allow people to use their face as a credential to make payments. The technology is a natural extension of using a fingerprint to verify a person’s identity, and it is far more secure than just comparing a signature on the back of a credit card to a signature on a receipt.

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> Posted by Shreya Chatterjee, Senior Research Associate and Misha Sharma, Project Manager, IFMR LEAD

Group of people waiting to make their transactions at Padma’s house

It was almost three in the afternoon when we arrived at Padma’s house in the sleepy village of Katpadi in Tamil Nadu. In a state where 55 percent of women in rural areas don’t participate in the labor force, Padma is the only business correspondent (BC) in her village, working for the sole bank in the area. In 2006, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) passed guidelines that allowed banks to employ third party agents, using decentralized technology to provide banking services in rural and remote areas.

Padma works 12 hours a day, providing localized basic banking services to her immediate community. As a business correspondent, she helps customers open bank accounts, deposit and withdraw cash often linked to government schemes, link Aadhaar IDs with banking accounts, and even pay utility bills.

As part of our CFI Fellowship study on effective human touch in India’s digital age, we made a visit to Padma’s village to understand her work process as a business correspondent, the challenges she faces in her work, and how she perceives her customers’ readiness to move from cash based to digital financial services channels. There are pockets in India of staggering innovation and adoption of digital financial services. But they aren’t widespread, and the optimal mix of human touch versus digitized customer experiences remains elusive. Our CFI Fellowship project aims to better understand the barriers impeding digital financial services and how human touch can help to overcome these obstacles and improve client outcomes more broadly.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.